This month maarks the fourth year numerous hardy cyclists will pedal 175 miles in solidarity and the heat of an East Coast summer to support Camp Simcha and its parent organization, Chai Lifeline.
This year’s ride, which originates in Asbury Park, N.J., on July 31 and finishes a week later in Glen Spey, N.Y., at Camp Simcha, involves more than 300 cyclists pedaling for a cause that so far has generated $1.8 million.
This camp, which since 1986 has given children diagnosed with cancer and other serious illnesses a fresh lease on life, delivers a summer with activities that run the gamut from dream-come-true helicopter and motorcycle rides, concerts and interactive shows to activity-filled days with sports, crafts and other simple pleasures that give them the sense of normalcy missing in their everyday lives.
Camp Simcha is the flagship program of Chai Lifeline, overseen by Rabbi Sruli Fried, director of programs and services. His schedule keeps him busy year round, with responsibilities that include directing a staff of 10 plus 500 volunteers and providing daily services that include food delivery, rides, respite services and an apartment for families two blocks from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that he affectionately refers to as the “Kosher Ronald McDonald House.”
According to Fried, the genesis for the ride came from Chai Lifeline volunteer and Camp Simcha counselor Davie Egert, who wanted to bring his bike to the camp. He came up with the idea of a sponsored bike ride when the bus traveling from his Lakewood, N.J., home to Glen Spey did not allow passengers to bring their bikes on board.
While Fried had his doubts about the enterprise, the next thing he realized, Egert raised about $15,000 and received coverage from the Asbury Park Press.
In 2010, 40 riders joined him, and together, they raised over $200,000. Fried realized the extent of the impact this endeavor was making when one of the wheelchair-bound campers turned to him and said, “Rabbi, you know what’s so incredible about the event? Here we are dealing with illness, alone in the world, and nobody understands what it’s like. When I saw these 40 people biking 175 miles just for me, to tell me how much they cared about me, and were raising money for me to go to camp,” he was overjoyed.
“It was the most overwhelming and heartwarming moment in the world,” Fried affirmed. “When I heard what that boy had to say, I knew this event was a winner in that it can be both a fundraiser and provider of so much inspiration and motivation.”
Fried adds that the campers’ parents are amazed that so many people from all over the East Coast and even Canada are willing to take two days out of the middle of a workweek, and train for months to raise this extraordinary amount of money just for them and their children. “To put things into perspective, a few months ago, I participated in the MS Ride in New York City, where 10,000 riders had raised $2 million,” he continues.
“Bike4Chai’s 300 riders, meanwhile, have raised $1.8 million. This is a testament to the incredible philanthropic nature of our Jewish community. When we see what those children, those warriors, are going through, it gives riders the incentive to train and raise funds.”
Camp Simcha veteran JJ Eizik, a 22-year-old Fairleigh Dickinson University business major, has kept close ties with the camp. Although he lost his left leg to cancer at 17, he ultimately gained the will and strength through his experience at the camp to cycle extensively, recreationally and in support of other charities.
“As part of my recovery, I wanted to prove to myself that even though I was an amputee, I could still ride, so I have done it with a hand cycle powered by my arms,” he explains.“It was my third summer at the camp when they staged the first Bike4Chai, and when I heard about it, I always had it in the back of my mind that staying involved was something I wanted to do.”
Eizik’s other objective with his participation in this year’s race is to send the kids at Camp Simcha a message that they should never give up. He insists there is “nothing in the world that will stop you from getting what you want except yourself.”
This year, Samara Sheller, 7, will also deliver that message. She will have the dream job of serving as the honorary captain of Ride4Chai. Although she is currently adjusting to life with a prosthetic, from her surgery forward, she and her family have received continual support from Chai Lifeline counselors, who paid them frequent visits during her treatment and recovery. She also got to know her Camp Simcha counselor, Carly, at a day at Sesame Place prior to her arrival at camp.
"We never felt more embraced in our lives than during this time of loneliness and fear,” says Samara’s mother, Dara Sheller. “Chai Lifeline became our new extended family, and throughout the lengthy hospital stays we knew that we were never alone.”